John Playfair’s Approach to “the Practical Parts of the Mathematics”

  • Amy Ackerberg-HastingsEmail author
Conference paper
Part of the Proceedings of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics/ Société canadienne d’histoire et de philosophie des mathématiques book series (PCSHPM)


Best known for Elements of Geometry (1795) and Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802), University of Edinburgh mathematics and natural philosophy professor John Playfair (1748–1819) also wrote several dozen books, expository articles, and opinion pieces as individual publications or for Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Edinburgh Review. Most of these works have been digitized and are readily available for study. In contrast, Playfair’s 1793 Prospectus of a Course of Lectures on Some of the Practical Parts of the Mathematics has nearly disappeared, with as few as eight surviving copies. The paper considers what we can learn from this document, which consists of a nineteen-page list of potential topics. Despite its brevity, the Prospectus includes a number of themes and priorities that both echoed the activities of eighteenth-century European mathematicians and recurred throughout Playfair’s writing and teaching.



The author thanks David Bellhouse, Edinburgh for checking databases of British newspapers for announcements of public lectures and course offerings in Edinburgh and the anonymous referees. Audiences at the 2017 Joint Mathematics Meetings and CSHPM Annual Meeting provided helpful questions and comments.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarRockvilleUSA

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